It’s easy to be flip about the deep implications of the Writers Guild of America strike, which is now stretching into its fourth week. After all, what’s the harm in missing a few episodes of Two and a Half Men?
|Laughing with him|
Liberals may be inclined to scoff at Mike Huckabee’s decision to make a TV ad with Chuck Norris, since they already scoff at Huckabee, generally (and probably at Norris, too). But the ad in question is actually pretty crafty, since it combines Norris’s encomiums with Huckabee’s absurdist martial-arts laugh lines (sample quote: “There’s no chin behind Chuck Norris’s beard — only another fist”), aimed at The Daily Show demographic. Democrats, are you taking notes?
But this take is too facile. In today’s media landscape, more and more serious-news coverage — particularly political news — is coming from written (read: fake) TV-news programs, with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report as exhibits A1 and A2. We’re also in the midst of a wide-open presidential campaign. And with those shows out of commission, stories that could change the course of the race haven’t been getting the attention they otherwise would.
The young and the meatballs
Consider, first, some recent testimonials to the serious journalistic importance of fake-news programming. (While The Daily Show, as a fake newscast, is the purest manifestation of fake news, I’m using the term to describe news coverage from programs such as Late Show with David Letterman, as well.) In 2004, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported that about as many young viewers were getting their presidential-campaign news from comedy programs including The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live (21 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds who were polled) as from the nightly newscasts of NBC, ABC, and CBS (23 percent of the same group). The same study found that a whopping 61 percent of that same demographic got their campaign information from comedy and/or late-night talk shows, either regularly or occasionally.
In 2006, meanwhile, an Indiana University study of coverage of the ’04 race found that The Daily Show contained just as much substantive information as its network-news counterparts. Is it really surprising, then, that Democrat John Edwards announced his 2004 presidential candidacy on The Daily Show? Or that Republican John McCain did the same on Letterman’s show earlier this year, with fellow Republican Fred Thompson following suit on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno?
Now consider three stories that broke during the current fake-news vacuum. First, there was the federal indictment of Bernie Kerik, failed Homeland Security secretary nominee and former campaign-driver-turned-police-commissioner of GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. (There’s also the allegation, by former Kerik paramour Judith Regan, that two Fox News officials urged her to lie to investigators about details of Kerik’s life to prevent harm to Giuliani’s campaign.) Next, there was GOP hopeful John McCain’s indulgent treatment of a South Carolina woman who asked him, in reference to Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton, “How do we beat the bitch?” — and McCain’s subsequent assertion that CNN’s coverage of this incident demonstrated the network’s liberal bias. Then there was the decision, by dark-horse GOP candidate Mike Huckabee, to produce an unabashedly self-parodic TV spot featuring film-vigilante Chuck Norris.
On a substantive level, the Kerik development was easily the most significant, since Giuliani’s long-standing patronage of a man with alleged mob ties raises serious questions about his ability to run the country. But all three developments positively seethed fake-news potential. And now — for a certain segment of the population — it’s almost like they never happened.
Or is it? Steve Bodow, The Daily Show’s head writer, admits that it’s frustrating watching choice material go untapped. (He calls the November 15 Democratic debate in Las Vegas a “big meatball,” and says Giuliani is becoming “quite a resource.”) But Bodow adds that he’s skeptical of studies that identify The Daily Show as a primary news source for any group. “I don’t have any statistical knowledge or anything, but it seems implausible to me,” he tells the Phoenix. “It seems like the type of thing people might be prone to say because it seems like a fun thing to say, rather than because it’s actually true.”
This is a deceptively subtle argument: since The Daily Show is now a dominant media brand for twentysomethings, it’s not implausible that twentysomethings would brand themselves by exaggerating their relationship to it. But Bodow’s skepticism itself needs to be treated skeptically. After all, one way for Bodow and other fake-news purveyors to guard against increased expectations that might accompany increased influence is to downplay those claims of influence, or dismiss them as exaggerated. (Stewart himself did this when the Pew study was released in 2004, saying that a lot of the respondents were “probably high,” according to the Associated Press.)